A Twisted Christmas


Santa Claus is coming to town, but you may not recognize him.

He's the one all in white, a glittery tiara perched between his rabbit ears. And that's Mrs. C., a Disney-esque evil stepmother with vampire brows and green eyeliner.

We're in the window of Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, where Christmas is being created.

A decal affixed to the window explains that this perverse pastel fantasy is "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," an installation by artist Deborah Brown.

Brown, reaching into a box of dismembered dolls' heads and decapitated toy animals, laughs and suggests that she might better have titled her tableau "You'd Better Watch Out."

Steven Johanknecht, out from New York where he's Barneys veep for display/store design, watches as Brown zaps a tuft of pastel marabou with a glue gun and affixes it to a white reindeer.

He grins. "When you drive by fast, it's going to look like a sort of traditional, twinkly Christmas window. And then when you get up close. . . ."

Up close, you see that those reindeer are not Prancer and Dancer. That's Queen Rudolph in the lead--with a blond Ivana wig, bee-stung red lips and Tammy Faye lashes.

The curious, strolling by at Wilshire and Camden, stop, look and wonder. "I love it!" exclaims one woman. "I'm just trying to figure out the plot."

Brown smiles. "People are totally freaked out."

It's not that she wants to offend. But she does hope to make people think. About things like human vanity and the commercialization of Christmas.

But, wait--this is Barneys, a tony store celebrating its first Yule in the shrine of conspicuous consumption.

Sure, Johanknecht allows, but Christmas doesn't have to be Rockwellian. "We're saying, 'Lighten up.' The creativity and magic of Christmas can be a little looser."

Besides, he loves the window because it's "the kind of thing no 'upscale' retailer would ever do."

Who is Deborah Brown and what's she saying? At 26, the St. Louis-based artist has an arts degree from UC San Diego and a masters in fine arts from UC Irvine.

Her grotesque, hybridized human-animal-vegetable creatures, she explains, speak of a culture gone amok, a world in which mortal misfits, seeking to reveal their true souls, have traded in their shapes for ones they can believe in.

"It's not meant to be nasty, mean," Brown says. "You can laugh at it and really understand yourself more."

A stretch limo glides by outside. "Wait!" jokes Brown, looking out. "Come here! I'm going to put you in here."

A passerby, scrutinizing Queen Rudolph, smiles and says, "Looks like a lot of Beverly Hills women, doesn't it?"

When she creates a faux object, "It's very much like plastic surgery that doesn't turn out quite right," Brown says. Consider the jet-haired doll with a sea gull body. "She didn't think she was going to be a sea gull. She thinks she's pretty, though."

"Kids like this because it's a little strange," Johanknecht says. "Adults like it because it's really sick. So it's perfect for Christmas."

Brown's Santa isn't really evil, but he sure is different . Ask Brown about his tiara and she replies: "I almost don't want to touch that." Let's just say, "He's not exactly Mr. Smith next door."

And what's with Mrs. Claus? A narcissistic contemporary mother, Brown suggests. "She doesn't really care about the kids. She's more interested in who he's having an affair with than in putting things in stockings."

A tiny doll with a Vegas marabou headdress pops out of the chimney of a mini-chalet, her arms sticking out the sides. A creature with a doll's body and an elephant head spins on a platform.

Brown insists that her Christmas window is "not about trying to test you." Of course, if you want to speculate about issues of power, media hype, celebrity, corruption, isolation, futility. . . .

Around New Year's, Santa Claus will be leaving town, leaving Brown with eight chalets, five reindeer and assorted reconfigured beings.

She may try to place her window in a museum. Or perhaps try to sell her fantasy creatures individually--although, she says, "I don't know who's going to want to live with them."

A Vegetable Garden for Fun, Food and Therapy

It all started with some geriatric geraniums and the imaginations of stroke rehab patients Don Brown and Cora Burrell.

Today, vegetables from the Brown and Burrell Garden at White Memorial Medical Center in East L.A. are harvested and turned into soup and salad by patients.

Brown and Burrell, now outpatients, returned for the recent dedication of the garden, which in five months has become a food source for the rehab unit's kitchen and an enjoyable part of patients' recreation and speech therapy.

Speech pathologist Christine Alcan-Leal recalls that Brown, 57, was physically impaired and depressed when he checked in last April. "He refused any therapy."

Then, in June, Burrell, 60, arrived. They became friends. One day, they devised a plan for those wilting geraniums in patio pots.

Before you could say jalapeno, they'd pried $125 from the recreation therapy budget for seeds, potting soil and tools. The administration turned over a small plot.

As seedlings sprouted in the patio pots, patients transplanted them into the garden. Marigolds went in the center--to ward off bugs--and vegetables around the rim, where wheelchair patients can rake and hoe.

A weaker patient may be able only to tap seedlings out of starter containers and hand them to a patient strong enough to bend and dig. Those on walkers tend the center area.

Rehab patients regularly work in the garden. In their kitchen, they dice and chop the bounty, all of which is physical therapy.

Gardening increases muscle strength and balance and adds fun to their regimen. And, says recreation therapist Linda Gudbrandsen, it increases motivation and adds a sense of purpose, which is often "the missing element."

Around the hospital, there's talk of a rehab flower garden. There's this nice piece of ground near the emergency room. . . .

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